What a shot of heroin feels like to a Buddhist monk

A federal law enforcement officer once asked me what heroin feels like. She tried to hide the glimmer of that long suppressed, reckless teenage curiosity I caught in her eyes. Cops, you see, are really just latent criminals. Late developers. First I dismissed her with the Trainspotting cliché: take the best orgasm you’ve ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it. This actually seemed to peak her interest though, so I decided to go Zen on her. I should have stuck with the sex metaphors. This is what I said:

You’re a slow lizard in the cold dawn of a black desert. Your blood is frozen in your veins. You can’t move. You feel icy, you feel cold, you feel old. Your eyes cry for the sun. And the sun rises like a shot of heroin, and you’re bathed in the warm glow. The black sand cooks your belly and the heat hits your lizard brain and you lick your lizard lips with joy as the sunlight courses through you.

Understand?

She didn’t say anything.

OK…

You’re a dry, empty glass, standing alone in the arid sun of the Sahara. Your glassy skin is baked dry with caked sand. All you feel is pain as your delicate body starts to crack in the heat. Then the rain comes in a torrential rush out of the bright sunlit sky. It washes over you and fills you to the brim until you overflow with joy and you are now finally alive.

She looked puzzled, but thoughtful. Like a curious horse.

OK…

You’re a horse and—

—Nevermind, she said.

Heroin. It’s nirvana.

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8 thoughts on “What a shot of heroin feels like to a Buddhist monk

  1. I like your descriptions. I feel this way without heroin. In my zen moments of oneness with the universe. You don’t really need to shoot up to get this. But it is an addiction of sorts. I keep on trying to go there. And I write poetry about being there. But unless you’ve been there, you can’t imagine what it’s like–just as with taking heroin, it appears. I tell my son, who is a heroin addict, this, but he doesn’t believe me. i’m just mom. What do I know about Nirvana? If he only knew.

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  2. I have to qualify what I just wrote. What I feel on Zen is somewhat different than what you describe with heroin. You describe starting from deep pain, cold/thirst, then you shoot up to this extraordinary high. With Zen, I usually start from a much better place, a place of peace, stillness, no-thought, then it comes as you describe. I know why my son takes heroin. But I also know how it has ruined his life. Not just metaphorically. He’s not an artist using heroin to take him to extraordinary flights of imagination. He’s homeless. He’s destitute. He has nothing. Only heroin. His jealous mistress. I wish I could help him find something else to ease that pain, to take him to nirvana, that would not take everything else away from him.

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    • I was trying to imitate something like a koan (flashes artistic license), although this is a true story. These metaphors have stuck with me, I’ve used them many times to describe what it feels like, usually to a response of blank stares. Some might say this is only what it feels like at times, at the beginning of the romance, or when you’re in serious need, or when the dose is high. Sometimes it just makes you feel functionally normal and makes the sickness go away.

      Heroin never got me anywhere creatively or functionally, but I used it to feel complete from the first time I tried it, like it was medication. Most of the pitfalls I experienced were caused by the drug war–expense, effort to score, street quality drugs, arrest, etc. For the most part, I was completely functional on heroin, for years.

      Methadone, however, saved me from things getting worse, whether you want to blame the drug or blame prohibition. It enabled me to live normally and it’s a much more stable, subtle opiate that still satisfies (unlike suboxone, in my opinion). The problem for most people, I think, is that it takes time to switch to methadone. There’s a transition period where you feel like you have to use both, even if you want to switch. But that is generally the case when switching between any prescription drugs of the same class when one is physically and/or psychologically dependent on them. Of course, you also have to actually want to stop using heroin. I didn’t even want that, at first. But it came in time. So, methadone saved my life, maybe. But it was very difficult to quit. The withdrawal is far worse than heroin.

      I don’t have much real experience with Zen meditation, although I was literally beaten with a stick by a Zen Buddhist monk for months when I was a kid training in a martial art where meditation was taken very seriously. I just have a philosophical appreciation for Buddhist ideology.

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      • My son just started on methadone, so I hope it helps him as much as it has you and others. I know the heroin is self-medication for him too, as for so many.

        The drug war. It’s crazy! Sometimes I think that’s ruined more lives than the drugs. Once you get into the system it so hard to get cut loose and it eats you up with its fines and violations and strict requirements . . . well, you know.

        I’d like to see all drugs decriminalized. If it was regulated and controlled and addiction treated as a disease rather than as a criminal offense, I think we’d all be better off.

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